13 Different Types of Coconut Trees & Their Identifying Features (With Photos)

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Written By Lyrae Willis

Environmental Scientist & Plant Ecologist

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Home » Tree Types » 13 Different Types of Coconut Trees & Their Identifying Features (With Photos)

Coconut trees are beautiful palm trees that are critical to the survival of so many people throughout the tropical and subtropical world.

In India, it is called kalpa vriksha, or the tree of life, where it is worshipped and revered.

Coconuts are all part of the same monotypic genus, Cocos, of the Arecaceae Family. They are called Cocos nucifera.

Even though there is only one species of coconut, there are over 100 different regional varieties and cultivars found worldwide.

Even though they are the size of a tree, they are more closely related to grasses and bromeliads than they are to any other trees.

It is hard to know where the coconut originated because its large buoyant seeds can travel hundreds or thousands of miles on ocean currents. But it is believed they originated in southeast tropical Asia.

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Guide to Coconut Tree Varieties – 13 Types and Their Distinctive Features

Coconuts are all part of the same monotypic genus, Cocos, with only one species, Cocos nucifera. There are no official subspecies or botanical variants as they are all considered to be synonyms of the type species. However, numerous cultivars exist.

Coconut cultivars are mostly divided into “Tall” and “Dwarf” varieties. Tall coconuts typically grow 80 – 100 ft tall, and they require cross-pollination, which creates more genetic diversity.

Dwarf varieties are slightly to much shorter, but they are all called dwarfs even though they can still reach 60 ft or more. They simply produce fruit at a much younger age when the trees are shorter, which is why they are all called dwarf trees.

A third category is the hybrids which typically involve crosses between the tall and the dwarf varieties.

Let’s look at some of each of those categories.

Tall Coconut Palms

Tall coconut palms tend to live longer than dwarfs, usually living for 80 – 90 years.

They take longer to produce fruit than dwarfs, between 6 – 9 years after planting, and reach peak production at around 15 years.

They tend to adapt better to adverse environments, including wind, temperature fluctuations, and storms.

They will typically grow in any soil, provided it is well-draining.

Though they prefer consistently moist soils, most tall palm varieties can handle short periods of drought.

1. East Coast Tall Coconut – Cocos nucifera ‘East Coast Tall’

East Coast Tall Coconut
Image via Kadiyam Nursery

East Coast Tall Coconut is one of the most widely cultivated tall coconut varieties.

It’s grown for fruit production and as an ornamental street or landscape tree.

It takes 6 – 8 years for fruit production to begin, and it reliably produces 60 – 70 coconuts per year, on average.

It is easy to grow and thrives in various soils, including loamy, sandy, and poor.

It has medium moisture requirements and prefers well-drained soil. It will not tolerate soggy soil. It will tolerate drier soils, but fruit production will be reduced.

It is moderately tolerant to major pests like scale insects, mites, mealy bugs, and rhinoceros beetles.

Tolerant of salinity and salt spray, it can be grown next to the ocean.

Best grown in full sun.

Identifying Features of the East Coast Tall Coconut

East Coast Tall Coconut is a tall coconut tree growing to 90 ft tall with a rounded, upright form.

It produces yellow flowers in panicle inflorescences throughout the year whenever the conditions are right.

They are not self-pollinating. The production of fruits for harvest or reproduction requires cross-pollination.

Fruits are medium to large in size and green when mature, with abundant coconut water inside.

Other Common Names: N/A

Native Area/Origin: East coast of India

USDA Growing Zones: 10 – 11 outdoors

Average Size at Maturity: 80 – 90 ft tall, 20 – 40 ft spread

2. West Coast Tall Coconut – Cocos nucifera ‘West Coast Tall’

West Coast Tall Cocos_nucifera
Image by Sanfy, Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

The West Coast Tall Coconut is even taller than the East Coast variety and one of the tallest tall varieties at up to 100 ft tall.

They grow very well in littoral sand (beach or lakeside sand) and are salt-tolerant.

These take an average of 6 – 7 years to bear fruit and produce about 80 coconuts annually.

Best grown in full sun in moist but well-drained soil.

This variety is somewhat drought-tolerate and can survive occasional prolonged dry soils, although fruit production will be reduced.

The husk is high quality and widely used in making coconut coir products.

It also produces significant amounts of coconut sap, which is made into coconut sugar.

In some areas of the world, it can be susceptible to root wilt, bleeding disease, leaf blight, and basal stem rot.

It is somewhat tolerant to the burrowing nematode.

Identifying Features of the West Coast Tall Coconut

The West Coast Tall Coconut is a tall palm growing 60 – 100 ft tall with a trunk diameter of about 9.5” and has a distinct bole at its base.

Leaves are long with medium-sized strong petioles.

Inflorescences have distinct male and female phases; it cannot self-fertilize, so cross-pollination is required.

Fruits are green, greenish-yellow, or brown and are oval to oblong in shape, with a husk that is 52% of its total weight.

The fruit is slightly larger than the East Coast Coconut and produces slightly less water but more oil.

Other Common Names: Ordinary Tall, Common Tall, Indian West Coast Tall

Native Area/Origin: Western India, where it has been under cultivation since ancient times.

USDA Growing Zones: 10 – 11

Average Size at Maturity: 60 – 100 ft tall, 20 – 40 ft spread

3. Jamaican Tall Coconut – Cocos nucifera ‘Jamaican Tall’

Image by Zeeth, Own work, Public Domain

Jamaican Tall is a beautiful tall coconut palm that was once very popular for its rapid growth, dense dark green canopy, curvy trunk, and prolific fruit production (100 – 200 fruits per year).

Unfortunately, this one was hit badly with Lethal Yellowing Disease and has been replaced by more resistant dwarf varieties in recent years.

Best grown in full sun in well-drained soil.

It has medium to high moisture requirements and is not considered drought-tolerant like some other tall varieties.

It can live up to 80 years and reach heights of about 100 ft.

Identifying Features of the Jamaican Tall Coconut

Jamaican Tall Coconut is a tall tree (to 100ft) with a crooked trunk and a distinctively swollen base (bole) that thins towards the top (differentiating it from the similar-looking Panama Tall with a thicker but still crooked trunk).

It has a dense, rounded canopy of broad, dark green leaves that are darker and more densely packed than many other varieties.

Fruits are medium to large-sized in colors ranging from green to brown. The meat is some of the firmest and freshest of all the varieties.

Other Common Names: Atlantic Tall

Native Area/Origin: Introduced to Jamaica by Spanish settlers in the 16th century

USDA Growing Zones: 10 – 11

Average Size at Maturity: 80 – 100 ft tall, 20 – 40 ft spread

4. Panama Tall Coconut – Cocos nucifera ‘Panama Tall’

Panama Tall Coconut Tree - Grid 2 Square
Image via Indiamart and Let’s Grow Florida – Combined by Lyrae Willis for Tree Vitalize

The Panama Tall Coconut is famous for its hardiness. It is the most cold-resistant coconut palm there is.

It is one of the very few coconuts that will grow well outside of the tropics.

It is a perfect choice for areas with frequent storms since it is more wind-resistant than many other varieties, or in the subtropics where temperatures drop below 60F since it is hardy to USDA zone 9b.

Best grown in full sun in well-drained soil. It will not tolerate soggy soil.

It has medium moisture requirements.

Identifying Features of the Panama Tall Coconut

The Panama Tall Coconut is a tall tree growing to 100 ft tall with an umbrella-shaped canopy (differentiating it from the similar-looking Jamaica tall with its round canopy).

It has a wide trunk that is crooked and swollen but very robust, helping make it more stable and wind-tolerant.

Leaves are dark green, and petioles are green or bronze.

Fruits are medium to large in size and are green or bronze when mature.

Other Common Names: Pacific Tall

Native Area/Origin: Panama. Genetic evidence shows it was likely introduced to the west coast of northern South America from the Philippines about 2,250 years ago by Austronesian people.

USDA Growing Zones: 9b – 11

Average Size at Maturity: 70 – 90 ft tall, 20 – 30 ft spread

5. Tiptur Tall Coconut – Cocos nucifera ‘Tiptur Tall’

Tiptur Tall Coconut
Image via India Mart

Tiptur Tall Coconut is one of the easiest coconuts to grow. Once planted and established, it requires almost no maintenance.

Best grown in full sun in well-drained soil. It has medium moisture requirements.

It begins to flower about 6 – 7 years after planting and reliably produces 70 – 80 coconuts yearly.

It grows well in inland areas and performs well in low-rainfall areas. It will even yield well under rain-fed only conditions, though yields will be higher if irrigated.

This cultivar was collected from Karnataka and planted in the genebank at CPCRI in 1964. It is popular in India for its tasty sweet coconut water and its drought tolerance.

Identifying Features of the Tiptur Tall Coconut

Tiptur Tall is a tall palm growing up to about 80 ft in height with a thin trunk and a medium-sized bole.

It is similar in features to the West Coast Tall.

It has about 35 long leaves (15 ¾ ft long) with strong, broad petioles and abundant leaf segments (108 – 120) forming a rounded crown.

The inflorescence is relatively short with a stout stalk. The male phase lasts about 21 days, followed by a short 3-day female phase that begins after the male phase ends.

Cross-pollination is generally required. However, some self-pollination happens due to the inter-spadix overlapping of male and female phases.

It produces large 6 – 12” long fruits that are oval and brown, green, or greenish-yellow. The nut inside is round with a thick endosperm and a strong shell.

Other Common Names: N/A

Native Area / Origin: Karnataka India

USDA Growing Zones: 10 – 11

Average Size at Maturity: 40 – 80 ft tall, 15 – 30 ft spread

Dwarf Coconut Palms

Dwarf coconut palms are not what you might think of when you hear the term “dwarf.” In fact, they sometimes reach heights of 60 ft, though many new cultivars are often shorter.

They are dwarf in that they produce fruit at a much earlier, and hence shorter, age. They begin to flower around three years after planting and are in full production by around nine years.

They are shorter-lived than the tall varieties, living around 40 – 50 years on average.

Their coconuts are often much more abundant but typically smaller.

They tend to be more susceptible to drought, storms, and other environmental conditions than tall varieties.

However, they tend to be much more resistant to the Lethal Yellowing Disease that has devastated many tall varieties.

6. King Coconut – Cocos nucifera ‘King’

King Coconuts
Image by Kalai, Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The King Coconut is considered a semi-dwarf variety, reaching heights of 30 – 60 ft tall.

This coconut variety is native to Sri Lanka and parts of India, where it grows wild and is a common part of the diet for the local people who drink their sweet water and eat its nutritious meat.

It is a highly nutritious variety with large quantities of vitamins, amino acids, calcium, sodium, potassium, phosphate, and chloride.

King Coconuts are orange and shaped like a football, are available all year, and are harvested after 7 – 8 months.

They are grown mostly for milk production and coconut water.

Best grown in full sun in well-drained sandy soil with medium moisture.

Identifying Features of the King Coconut

King Coconut is a semi-dwarf tree growing 30 – 60 ft tall.

It produces coconuts in clusters of up to 20 large fruits on a large peduncle.

Fruits are elongated oval, 8 – 12” long, usually bright orange, with smooth, shiny skin that may have an occasional dark abrasion on it. Green varieties also occur.

Other Common Names: Thæmbili (in Sinhala)

Native Area: Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia

USDA Growing Zones: 10b – 11

Average Size at Maturity: 30 – 60 ft (to 80 ft) tall, 15 – 30 ft spread

7. Fiji Dwarf Coconut – Cocos nucifera ‘Fiji Dwarf’

The Fiji Dwarf is a unique dwarf. It is a much thicker tree and shares other characteristics with tall varieties but in a dwarf, self-pollinating, early fruit-producing form.

They are widely used for their fruit, water, and oil production and their ornamental values because they have a lush top of green leaves.

The USDA calls them “one tough nut” because they are more durable than other dwarf varieties. They are resistant to wind, poor soil, and hurricanes.

The Fiji Dwarf Coconut has the highest genetic diversity of all dwarf varieties, coming second to the tall varieties.

Unlike the tall varieties, however, they are highly resistant to diseases.

This cultivar was widely planted in Florida and the Caribbean after the Lethal Yellowing Disease ravaged the tall varieties in the 1970s.

Best grown in full sun in well-drained soil. It requires fairly consistent medium moisture.

Identifying Features of the Fiji Dwarf Coconut

Fiji Dwarf is a unique slower-growing dwarf variety with a swollen bole at the base of its thick, crooked trunk that looks more like a tall variety.

They also have a unique leaf structure with shorter, wider leaflets that are closer together, making the leaves look richer and lusher than most other varieties and creating a fuller, more dense canopy.

Petioles are green or bronze.

Its large fruits are elongated ovals in green or bronze.

Other Common Names: Niu Leka Dwarf, Samoan Dwarf

Native Area/Origin: Unknown, but probably the South Pacific.

USDA Growing Zones: 10 – 11

Average Size at Maturity: 20 – 25 ft tall, 10 – 20 ft spread

8. Malayan Yellow Dwarf Coconut – Cocos nucifera ‘Malayan Yellow’

Malayan Yellow Dwarf Coconut - Cocos nucifera ‘Malayan Yellow’
Images by Fern Berg and Kadiyam Nursery

Malayan Yellow Dwarf Coconut may be the most widespread dwarf coconut in the world.

It was introduced in Malaysia in the late 1800s by Indonesian growers.

It is a very high-yielding coconut that performs well in tropical climates that are consistently hot.

In the right climate, it is very easy to grow and produces medium-sized pale yellow coconuts just a few years after planting.

They are drought-tolerant, salt-tolerant, and tolerant of any soil, provided it is well-drained.

Best grown in full sun in well-drained soil. Unlike most coconuts, these require a deep organic mulch around them to do well.

Malayan coconuts are heavy feeders and perform best when fed regularly.

Identifying Features of the Malayan Yellow Dwarf Coconut

The Malayan Yellow Dwarf Coconut is a medium-sized tree (30 – 60 ft) with a narrow, straight trunk without a swollen bole.

Its mature leaves have pale yellow petioles the same color as its mature fruit.

It produces small white, inconspicuous flowers in paniculate inflorescences in spring.

It produces medium-sized oblong fruits that are yellow-green when young but turn pale yellow when ripe and are about 6 – 12” long, and weigh 1.5 – 1.75 lbs.

Other Common Names: Malayan Dwarf

Native Area/Origin: Malaysia

USDA Growing Zones: 10b – 11

Average Size at Maturity: 30 – 60 ft tall, 15 – 25 ft spread

9. Golden Malayan Dwarf Coconut – Cocos nucifera ‘Golden Malayan’

Golden Malayan Dwarf Coconut - Cocos nucifera ‘Golden Malayan’
Images by Fern Berg and lordrassaq

The Golden Malayan Dwarf Coconut is similar in every way to the Malayan Yellow Dwarf except in the color of its slightly larger fruits.

These are best grown in tropical areas in sheltered locations in full sun with organic mulch around them.

They require medium moisture and are adaptable to any soil type, provided they are well-drained.

They produce fruit early, and their golden-orange, bronze, or reddish color provides ornamental interest.

The fruits are excellent for cooking and eating fresh. They also produce excellent quality coconut water.

They’re drought-tolerant and salt-tolerant.

Malayan coconuts are heavy feeders and perform best when fed regularly.

Identifying Features of the Golden Malayan Dwarf

The Golden Malayan Dwarf Coconut is a medium-sized tree (30 – 60 ft) with a narrow, straight trunk without a swollen bole.

Its mature leaves have golden to bronze petioles the same color as its mature fruit.

It produces small white, inconspicuous flowers in paniculate inflorescences in spring.

It produces medium-sized oblong fruits that are yellow-green when young but turn golden, golden-orange, bronze, or occasionally reddish when ripe and are about 10 – 12” long and weigh around 1.75 lbs.

Other Common Names: Malayan Dwarf, Golden Malay Coconut

Native Area/Origin: Malaysia

USDA Growing Zones: 10b – 11

Average Size at Maturity: 30 – 60 ft tall, 15 – 25 ft spread

10. Green Malayan Dwarf Coconut – Cocos nucifera ‘Green Malayan Dwarf’

The Green Malayan Dwarf Coconut is another Malayan dwarf coconut that is quite easy to grow if the climate is tropical.

This tree can also be grown in a pot on a patio in zones 4 – 9 and brought indoors in winter and can be placed in a location where light is not abundant as it will be semi-dormant.

These differ from the other Mayalan Dwarfs in their fruits which remain green when ripe and contain more water and less meat. It is also a shorter dwarf coconut than the other varieties.

These produce fruits at a young age.

While somewhat drought-tolerant, fruit production will be better with irrigation.

Malayan coconuts are heavy feeders and perform best when fed regularly.

Identifying Features of the Malayan Green Dwarf Coconut

The Malayan Green Dwarf Coconut is a small to medium-sized coconut tree (30 – 40 ft) with a narrow, straight trunk without a swollen bole.

Its mature leaves have green petioles, differentiating it from the other Malayan Dwarf coconuts with yellow, gold, or bronze petioles.

It produces small white, inconspicuous flowers in paniculate inflorescences in spring.

It produces medium-sized, 6 – 12” long, 1.5 – 1.75 lbs, oblong fruits that remain green when they are ripe. They differ from the other Malayan dwarfs in their color and in that they contain less meat but more water.

It has a thinner trunk and petiole than the similar Maypan Coconut.

Other Common Names: Green Malayan Palm

Origin: Malaysia

USDA Growing Zones: 10b – 11 outdoors

Average Size at Maturity: 30 – 40 ft tall, 15 – 20 ft spread

11. Macapuno Coconut – Cocos nucifera ‘Macapuno’

Macapuno Coconut
Image by Setiawanap, Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

The Macapuno Coconut is a naturally occurring genetic mutant dwarf tree.

It has an abnormal development of its endosperm that has almost no water, but the meat is gelatinous, soft, and fleshy instead of firm like other coconuts, and also contains a much higher sugar content.

It’s famous in Asia, where the gelatinous flesh is highly prized as a sweet delicacy and is made into high-end desserts that are sold at a premium price.

They are also highly nutritious, containing significant amounts of protein and oi.

Best grown in full sun in any well-drained soil. They have medium moisture requirements.

The name Macapuno is derived from a Filipino word meaning ‘tends to fullness.”

This variety suffers from poor germination making large-scale commercial production impossible due to the mutant endosperm that cannot nourish the developing embryo. Newer in vitro methods are being developed that are showing some success.

Identifying Features of the Macapuno Coconut

The Macapuno Coconut is a small coconut tree that seldom exceeds 16 ft tall.

It has a unique genetic mutation in a recessive gene that leads to abnormal development of its endosperm, creating soft, jelly-like flesh and little water.

It is impossible to distinguish macapuno coconuts from normal ones based on the external appearance of their fruit. Experienced coconut handlers can recognize them by the sound they make when you tap them, as this will be different than those with firmer flesh and water inside.

Otherwise, you would need to open the fruit in order to identify it.

This same feature has been observed in other varieties of coconuts where the mutation has also occurred spontaneously.

Other Common Names: Kopyor Coconut, Makapuno Coconut

Native Area/Origin: A naturally occurring genetic mutant discovered in the Philippines in 1931.

USDA Growing Zones: 10b – 11

Average Size at Maturity: 10 – 16 ft (to 20 ft) tall, 8 – 10 ft spread

12. Chowghat Orange Dwarf Coconut – Cocos nucifera ‘Chowghat’

Chowghat Orange Dwarf Coconut
Image by India Mart

The Chowghat Orange Dwarf Coconut produces fruits just 3 – 4 years after planting and it lives for about 50 years on average.

Like all dwarfs, only one tree is needed for pollination to occur.

The size and sweetness of the fruits have made this variety quite popular.

It produces up to 65 large-sized orange coconuts annually with abundant meat and sweet water inside.

Best grown in full sun in any well-drained soil. It has medium moisture requirements.

This tree is sensitive to high winds and drought and needs to be in a protected location with consistently moist soil.

It should be grown in areas where temperatures seldom drop below 70 F.

This variety came from coconuts collected from Kerala, India, in 1940 and was first released for widespread cultivation in 1991.

Identifying Features of the Chowghat Orange Dwarf Coconut

The Chowghat Orange Dwarf Coconut is a truly dwarf tree, seldom growing taller than about 16 ft.

It is an early-flowering variety that starts bearing fruit about 3 – 4 years after planting.

Fruits are round to almost round, and their smooth skin is orange when ripe. They have a significant amount of sweet meat and water inside.

Other Common Names: Gowrigathram, Chenthengu

Native Area/Origin: Kerala, India

USDA Growing Zones: 10b – 11

Average Size at Maturity: 12 – 16 ft tall, 10 ft spread

Hybrid Coconut Palms

Hybrids are normally superior to both the tall and dwarf varieties in producing earlier, higher quality, and more abundant fruits because they are bred for this purpose.

High-yielding hybrids are also normally bred to resist pests, disease, and drought.

13. Maypan Coconut – Cocos nucifera ‘Maypan’

Maypan Coconut palm
Image by Palmco

The Maypan is a hybrid engineered for its cold hardiness, tolerance of adverse weather, and its exceptional resistance to Lethal Yellowing Disease.

It was created in Jamaica in the 1960s from the cross-pollination of the Dwarf Malayan and the Panama Tall, creating a medium-sized tree.

Though cold-hardy, it performs best where temperatures never drop below 40 F.

Best grown in full sun in any well-drained soil. It has medium moisture requirements.

It is drought-tolerant and very salt-tolerant, thriving in sandy beach soils.

They don’t produce fruits until they are 6 – 8 years of age, but once they start producing, they yield 120 – 140 fruits per year.

Fertilize at least thrice yearly, in the spring, summer, and fall.

Identifying Features of the Maypan Coconut

The Maypan Coconut is a medium to large-sized palm that reaches an average height of 60 ft with a thick, often crooked or leaning trunk and a distinctively swollen bole.

It has an umbrella-shaped crown that is sometimes rounded.

Leaves are medium to dark green and are shorter than some varieties with shorter leaf segments, similar to their Malayan parent.

Fruits are variable in size but usually medium to large, conical in shape, and in colors that range from yellowish-green to reddish-brown. They have a large amount of meat and water and relatively little husk.

Other Common Names: N/A

Origin: Jamaica

USDA Growing Zones: 10 – 11

Average Size at Maturity: 50 – 80 ft tall, 20 – 40 ft spread

Coconut Tree Identification (With Photos)

Coconuts, all being from the same species, Cocos nucifera, have very similar features.

They are also very tall trees, whose identifying features are often located far above the ground, where it is difficult to see those features.

Furthermore, there seems to be a lack of accurate botanical descriptions available for most coconut cultivars. So, we typically rely on very general characteristics of their trunks and their fruits to help us identify the different types of coconuts.

Identifying Coconut Trees by Their Pinnate Feather-Like Leaves

Coconut leaves are massive, anywhere from about 12 to 23 ft long each. They are pinnately divided into about 100 single-folded leaf segments (often called leaflets). These segments are regularly but somewhat obliquely (asymmetrically – also called sub-opposite) arranged on each side of the midrib (often called a rachis).

This arrangement is often called feather-like, and palms with these leaves are called feather palms since the leaves resemble a feather.

They are technically not pinnately compound leaves made of individual leaflets because the leaf actually starts out whole but shreds into numerous uniform segments as it unfurls.

You can see this clearly when you look at a young coconut whose early leaves are still whole when they emerge. You do not see this in adult trees because the leaves are higher in the crown, and by the time they fully unfurl, they have already split into their segments.

Pinnately Divided Coconut Leaves
Images by David J. Stang,, CC BY-SA 4.0, and Fern Berg, Own Work – Combined and Text Added by Lyrae Willis for Tree Vitalize

Leaf segments are stiff, long, narrow, and linear in shape with entire margins and tips that are acute (the two sides are more or less straight and meet at an angle of less than 90°) or divided and asymmetrical.

The segments all have parallel venation (where the leaf veins all start at the base and run parallel to each other for the length of the segment).

Coconut Leaf Closeup
Image by Closed Book, Own work, CC0 – Text Added by Lyrae Willis for Tree Vitalize

Identifying Coconut Trees by Their Leaf Attachment

Coconut leaves typically have long, unarmed (they lack spines) petioles or leaf stalks. They are flat, very thick, broad, and sheathed at the base that encircles the stem.

Petioles may be green, or in many cultivars, the color of the petiole is yellow, golden, orange, or bronze, often matching the color of the ripe fruit.

Their leaf shaft is coarse and cloth-like where it attaches to the stem/trunk. It does not form a crown shaft as some similar-looking palms do.

Petiole and Leaf Sheath Features Coconut Trees - 3 Square - petioles sheaths crownshaft
Images by David J. Stang, CC BY-SA 4.0, David J. Stang, CC BY-SA 4.0, and Lyrae Willis, Own Work – Combined and Text Added by Lyrae Willis for Tree Vitalize

Identifying Coconut Trees by Their Leaf Arrangement

Like most palm trees, coconut leaves are crowded together in a rosette at the top of an unbranched trunk to form a crown.

Young leaves appear in the center of the crown as a spike-like structure with all the leaf segments compressed. Gradually the leaf opens over a period of a few months to spread into its mature form.

The oldest leaves will be the lowermost leaves. As they die, they are self-cleaning in that they do not remain attached to the trunk, leaving the trunk naturally bare below the crown of leaves without the need to prune them.

Rosette and Self-Cleaning Cocos_nucifera_(coconut_palms)
Image by James St. John, CC BY 2.0

Identifying Coconut Trees by Their Flowers

Coconut trees are monoecious; they produce separate male and female flowers on the same tree, and in their case, within the same inflorescence.

Tall varieties have separate male and female phases, with the male flowers often maturing first and the female flowers not maturing until the males are done, thus preventing self-pollination.

Dwarf varieties have male and female flowers that mature simultaneously, allowing for self-pollination.

The flowers of a coconut tree are typically small and inconspicuous and often very high on the tree, so they are not often used to aid in identification. But they all have three sepals and three petals; male flowers have six free stamens, and female flowers have a single large pistil with indistinct styles but 3 stigmas.

The flowers are produced in paniculate (branched) inflorescences in the axils of the leaves in the crown. They are large inflorescences, 1 – 2 ft long, but relatively small for a palm tree, rarely extending past the petioles and never beyond the leaf tips.

Inflorescences emerge in a woody, beaked, boat-shaped spathe (peduncular bract) that can remain on the tree for long periods of time before it splits open to reveal the mature inflorescence.

Inflorescences are branched with 1 or 2 orders of branching, and there are numerous small male flowers at the tips of the inflorescences (see photo below).

Inflorescences have much fewer but much larger, round female flowers (sometimes called ‘buttons’) located at the base of the inflorescence, and 1 – 2 male flowers subtend each one.

Coconut Inflorescences - 2 Square
Images by Varghese K James, Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, and Kembangraps, Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 – Combined and Text Added by Lyrae Willis for Tree Vitalize

Identifying Coconut Trees by Their Fruits

Coconuts are not actually a nut. Botanically speaking, they are dry drupes. That is because they are made of the endosperm that we eat (the white ‘meat’ of the coconut) that is encased in a hard, fibrous endocarp (the shell), which is the part we call the ‘nut.’

However, that ‘nut’ is also encased in a fibrous husk (the mesocarp and exocarp) that is often removed before being sold. What we see at a grocery store is not the entire fruit.

The presence of a husk is what makes it a drupe and not a nut. A nut is a seed encased in a woody pericarp – there is no extra husk layer on

A drupe is a fleshy or dry fruit with a central stony pit that contains the seed. A cherry is a drupe that we eat the flesh of.

Coconuts are very large (greater than 4” in diameter) single-seeded drupes, but we eat the seed inside the central stony pit rather than the dry fruit of the drupe.

The seed itself is made of a thick and bony endocarp (shell) with three germination pores (the ‘eyes’ of the coconut). The endocarp is hollow and filled with fluid (the coconut water we drink) and an oily endosperm (the coconut “meat” we eat) lining the cavity of the seed.

The entire drupe is usually somewhat to very triangular in shape, and the epicarp or outer skin of the fruit is brown (or variously colored in cultivars), thin, and smooth.

The mesocarp is dry and very fibrous (the husk) and may be very thick to relatively thin.

Coconut Cocos_nucifera
Image by James St. John, CC BY 2.0, Text added by Lyrae Willis

The coconuts most of us buy in grocery stores have had the husk removed, even though they do not stay as fresh when you do this! A coconut with its husk intact will last about five months at room temperature, whereas a de-husked coconut will only last about three weeks at room temperature.

If you have ever been to Mexico or another subtropical/tropical area where coconuts are grown, you may have drank coconut water out of the immature husk of a young coconut – it’s delicious!

Coconuts in their whole form weigh about 3 lbs, or with the husk removed, they weigh about 1 lb 12 oz.

Coconut - 2 Square - endocarp endosperm
Images by Lyrae Willis, Own Work – for Tree Vitalize

Wild coconuts differ slightly from domesticated ones. Their fruits are elongated with a thicker husk, less endosperm, and less coconut water. They are often referred to by the Somoan term “niu kafa.”

The thicker husk and less internal weight allow for easier ocean dispersal by making the fruits more buoyant and making it more likely for them to get tossed up and lodged into sandy beaches where they can germinate and grow.

Identifying Coconut Trees by Tree Habit

Tree habit or form is the overall shape a tree has when viewed from a distance. Being a palm and only a single species, the habit of coconut trees does not vary much. They are typically either rounded or umbrella-like, depending on how their leaves are arranged in the crown.

Palm Habit - 2 Square - rounded umbrella
Images by Zeeth, Own work, Public Domain, and Lyrae Willis, Own Work – Combined and Text Added by Lyrae Willis for Tree Vitalize

Identifying Coconut Trees by Trunk Characteristics

Coconut ‘trunks’ are not like a normal tree. They are not made of wood. Instead, it forms when the leaves mature and die, leaving behind hardened bases of their petioles (leaf stalks), creating a trunk with no bark. This is why the trunks are so thin, uniform, and have no branches.

In ideal conditions, a coconut palm will grow 12 – 36” per year.

Unlike some palms, coconuts are self-cleaning. This means that when the leaf dies, it falls off the tree and does not leave much behind other than some horizontal leaf scars on the trunk that their hardened bases formed. Notice how clean and smooth the trunks in the photos below look; they were not pruned this way. Also, note the horizontal lines on the trunks; those are the leaf scars.

Some trunks are wider while others are thinner, and some are straight while others are crooked. These features can help identify the different types of coconut varieties.

Tall coconuts, and some dwarf varieties, have a conspicuous bole at the base of the trunk. A bole is just a swelling located at the bottom of the trunk. The presence of a bole can also be useful in identifying different types of coconuts.

Trunk Features Coconut Trees - 3 Square - trunkbole sheaths crownshaft
Images by Palmco, Let’s Grow Florida, and Hiobson, Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 – Combined and Text Added by Lyrae Willis for Tree Vitalize

How to Tell a Coconut From Any Other Palm Tree

Coconut trees are part of the ‘feather palms’ because they have feather-like leaves. The presence of conspicuous coconuts on a palm with pinnately divided feather-like leaves is by far the easiest way to distinguish a coconut tree from any other palm.

Other feather palms typically produce much smaller drupes that are more berry-like in shape and appearance. Notice the berry-like drupes of Adonidia merrilllii in the photo above for the umbrella-like crown in the Tree Habit section. Most palms produce similar-sized but often very differently colored drupes.

When fruit is absent, the lack of a crown shaft and the presence of fibrous, cloth-like leaf sheaths (see photos above in the Leaf Attachment section) will help differentiate it from some of the other feather palms.

Fortunately, however, coconuts usually stay on the tree for many months at a time, so a mature coconut usually has some fruits on it, making it easy to identify it as coconut and not another type of feather palm.

There is another palm with even larger seeds, Lodoicea maldivica, sometimes called the ‘double coconut.’ However, its enormous seeds look nothing like coconuts, and the tree itself has costapalmate rather than pinnately divided leaves.

You can see the different leaf types seen in palm trees in the images below.

Palm Leaf Comparison - 3 Square - costapalmate palmate pinnate - Arecaceae
Images by Lyrae Willis, Own Work – for Tree Vitalize

Cool Classy Coconut Trees

Growing Coconut Trees in Your Garden

Coconut palms are classy trees with a very tropical vibe that make a lovely addition to any suitable landscape.

Growing coconut palms is very easy if you live in the right climate, in zones 10 – 11; be sure you know which USDA Planting Zones you live in before purchasing a tree. The Panama Tall can even be grown in zone 9b.

If you live in a colder climate, you could try growing one of the dwarf varieties in a pot on your patio and bring it indoors for winter.

All coconut trees require full sun and well-drained soil. They all also prefer consistently moist soil, so in drought-prone areas, irrigation will be required to ensure fruit production. Ensure the spot you have chosen fits those requirements to ensure your tree establishes successfully.

Check out How to Pick A Tree For Your Yard for more information on choosing the right tree for the right spot.

While they all prefer consistent moisture, some are somewhat drought-tolerant, while others are not at all. Be sure to read up on your chosen tree if you want one that can tolerate some dry soil.

Most of the time, you should not amend the site with organic material as it could impede the palm’s root growth, though some varieties do like some organic matter.

Some varieties are heavier feeders than others, but all will benefit from regular fertilizer 1 – 3 times per year as this will increase fruit production.

Propagation is always done from seed. You can plant your own coconuts; they are ready to be planted if you can hear a sloshing sound when you shake them.

To grow a coconut from seed, place it on its side in a well-drained seedbed or directly in a large pot and bury it with sand or mulch to ⅓ to ½ of its thickness. It will germinate best when the temperature is between 90 – 100 F. They can be transplanted at 6 months old into their permanent spot, or they can be grown in a large pot for a few to several years.

Lethal Yellowing Disease Symptoms

Lethal Yellowing Disease Lethalyellowingpalms
Image by USDA Forest Service, Bugwood Network University of Georgia, CC BY 3.0

Lethal Yellowing Disease is a phytoplasma disease that attacks over 30 species of palms, including the coconut palm.

It is a bacterium that belongs to the class Mollicutes, a bacterium with no cell walls. The name for this bacterium is Candidatus Phytoplasma palmae. It cannot be cultured and is only found in the phloem of host plants.

It is spread from tree to tree by insect pests when they feed on the host plants’ infected vascular system and then spread to the next tree they feed on.

It is often spread by planthoppers like Haplaxius crudus (aka Myndus crudus), which is native to Florida, the Caribbean, Central America, and Australia. The planthoppers live in turf grasses, and the pest is sometimes spread in contaminated grass seeds.

When grown traditionally in sandy soils on beaches, the coconut palms were not noticeably affected.

The problem arose from using coconut and date palms ornamentally, where these grasses are also grown, like at golf courses and on lawns, which caused the once less prevalent disease to spread much more rapidly.

The first symptom of the disease is the premature drop of coconuts of any size. Next, their inflorescences appear with blackened tips, and most of their male flowers will be dead and black. It will not set fruit anymore after that.

Then, the leaves start to yellow, starting with the oldest (lowermost) leaves until, eventually, the entire crown yellows (see photo above). The leaves later turn brown and droop, producing a skirt of dead leaves. Eventually, the entire crown withers, leaving a bare, standing trunk as the tree dies. This entire process takes about 3 – 5 months.

There is no cure for Lethal Yellowing Disease. The only effective remedy is prevention by planting resistant cultivars in areas that are affected by the disease.

Interesting Facts About Coconut Trees

The Arecaceae family is estimated to have evolved about 100 million years ago, based on fossil evidence dated around 93 million years old. The Cocos genus evolved a little later, likely around 62 million years ago.

It is uncertain where the coconut was originally native to because the seeds (the coconuts) are buoyant and capable of traveling long distances over the ocean. Modern genetic research suggests they originated between western Southeast Asia and Melanesia, based on the higher degree of genetic diversity found there.

Coconuts have been cultivated for at least four thousand years. Research has shown that there are two separate origins of coconut cultivation, one in the Pacific Ocean and the other in the Indian Ocean.

The word “coconut” comes from the Spanish and Portuguese word ‘coco,’ which translates to “head” or “skull” in English, coming from the shape of the shell and the three indentations on the shell that somewhat resemble human facial features.

Human Uses of Coconut Trees

Coconuts are considered the ‘tree of life” in certain Indian cultures, and for good reason. They are also often called the “Swiss Army Knife” of the plant kingdom because of their wide array of uses.

They are widely used throughout the tropical and subtropical world for their fruit and water, but also the materials they provide.

Leaves are used for roofing and mats and are made into shoes, hats, and clothing. No, ancient Polynesians have never worn coconut shells as bras, as shown occasionally on TV. That was an attempt by prudish western civilizations to portray traditional clothing while hiding the bare breasts normally worn by the people there.

The sturdy midrib of the coconut leaf is sometimes used as a broom handle and the leaf segments that are attached to it for sweeping.

Coconut shells were widely used as bowls and drinking cups and still are today, even well outside the tropics in tropical-themed restaurants. They are also carved into buttons or used in other crafts and decorative items.

The lower portion of the trunks is sometimes milled into lumber.

As a food, the coconut is incredibly nutritious and versatile. It produces delicious, nutritious water packed with vitamins and enzymes. The meat can be eaten fresh or dried and is added to salads, curries, ceviche, rice, and countless dessert items, including pies, cookies, pastries, puddings, and more.

Coconut is also used to make a delicious allergy-friendly alternative milk product. This is made by grinding the meat and mixing it with water. This is different from the water found inside the shell.

Coconut oil is a nutritious edible oil that is also widely used in the hair and cosmetic industry. It also makes a wonderful addition to homemade soaps, making them lather abundantly. My own homemade soap recipe uses 30% coconut oil.

In addition to being nutritious, the coconut provides other health benefits, including promoting weight loss, anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, and anti-parasite, promoting healthy hair and skin, enhancing digestion and improving absorption, and it lowers cholesterol, reducing the risk of heart disease.

The husk, or coir, is also incredibly versatile and can be used as compost, stuffing, or in gardening as an amazing substitute for peat moss.

What Coconut Coir is Superior to Peat Moss

The harvesting of peat moss is unsustainable and environmentally destructive. Peat bogs, where the peat moss is harvested from, take thousands and thousands of years to form. The plants in them grow very slowly and decompose even slower thanks to the acidic environment that slows decay.

Peat bogs are already under serious pressure due to climate change and habitat loss. Strip-mining of peat bogs adds to that pressure and releases significant quantities of carbon into the atmosphere.

Please consider switching to coconut coir. It is becoming more widely available. If your local nursery does not sell it yet, ask them to bring it in. Alternatively, it is widely available online at your favorite online retailers.

Coconut coir can be used to lighten soils and improve water retention, just like peat moss, but better. It absorbs water more rapidly and completely than peat moss does and holds about 10% more water than the same weight of peat moss would.

Peat moss is also often heavily acidic, and manufacturers often have to add lime to it to raise the pH before they sell it, and even then, it is still acidic.

Coconut coir is slightly acidic to almost pH neutral, so where you want neutral or alkaline coir is a much better choice.

If you are needing acidic pH, you can still use coir. Simply alter your pH by using phosphoric acid for your seedlings or cuttings or using elemental sulfur in the garden. Both are cheap and effective.

If you buy a poorer quality coir, be aware that you may need to leach the salts out of it. This is super easy to do, though. Simply hydrate it in a bucket full of warm water. Once hydrated, stir it thoroughly and then drain the water off, and it’s ready to use!

Wildlife Values Coconut Trees Provide

The small fragrant flowers attract numerous pollinating insects, including bees, butterflies, moths, and also certain birds.

Countless tropical birds use the trees as a roosting site to rest on their voyages.

The trees provide structural diversity to forested habitats and provide land-dwelling animals with temporary shelter.

Now you have learned so much more about the classy coconut tree. I hope that you have learned to appreciate this amazing tree of life and all that it provides for us.

Maybe now you will want to grow your own in your yard or a dwarf variety on your patio. Either way, once you do, you, too, will be as cool as the coconut!

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Photo of author

Lyrae Willis

Environmental Scientist & Plant Ecologist

Lyrae grew up in the forests of BC, Canada, where she got a BSc. in Environmental Sciences. Her whole life, she has loved studying plants, from the tiniest flowers to the most massive trees. She is currently researching native plants of North America and spends her time traveling, hiking, documenting, and writing. When not researching, she is homeschooling her brilliant autistic son, who travels with her and benefits from a unique hands-on education about the environment around him.

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